Note: This article is from J.D. Roth, who founded Get Rich Slowly in 2006. J.D. recently launched the Get Rich Slowly course, a year-long guide on how to master your money. His non-financial writing lives at More Than Money.

Three Blog NightLast week, Mr. Money Mustache visited the Pacific Northwest. While he was in Portland, he and I joined Tyler Tervooren (of the Riskology website) to host what we called “Three Blog Night”. About 100 readers of our blogs came out to a local park to chat about making money, taking risks, and the pursuit of happiness.

Toward the end of the evening, a young man introduced himself to me. Let’s call him Caleb. “I’ve been reading money blogs for a long time,” Caleb told me. “I’ve learned a lot. But there’s one thing I’ve never seen anyone cover.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Well,” said Caleb, “you give lots of advice for people who already have money. But what if you’re broke? What if you don’t have any money?”

“You know, Donna Freedman at Surviving and Thriving writes a lot for people who are struggling to get by,” I said.

“I’ll have to check it out,” said Caleb. “Maybe you can give me some advice right now, though. My wife and I are barely getting by, and just last week we got stuck with a surprise $900 dentist bill for two of my three kids. You offer advice for other people, but what should I do?”

People often ask me for advice, and this situation isn’t actually that unique. I began to offer some of my standard replies.

“First of all,” I said, “you should try never to get into this situation in the first place. You should either have emergency savings or otherwise set yourself up so that expenses like this don’t derail you. But from experience, I know that’s not always possible. I used to live paycheck to paycheck, and more than once I found myself in a similar situation.”

“What should I do?” Caleb asked.

“Well, what sort of work do you and your wife do?”

“My wife stays home to take care of our three kids,” Caleb said. “I have a part-time job that supports us. Meanwhile, I’m trying to start a business.”

“I see,” I said. “It sounds like you’re not bringing in a lot of income. To me, the easy solution would be to take another job, even if it’s part time. Your expenses are probably pretty low right now, so the only way out of this is to make more money.”

“I can’t take another job,” Caleb said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because that would take time away from my family,” he said. “I don’t want to take time away from my kids.”

I nodded. “I can understand that, but you have to realize that it’s only a short-term sacrifice. It’s not a life sentence. You’d just take the second job until you paid off the dentist bill and maybe saved a small emergency fund so you don’t get surprised by something like this again.”

“I can’t do it,” he said. Inside, I frowned. I probably frowned outside too. I was reminded of the time I heard Dave Ramsey field a similar question. He ultimately told the caller that he couldn’t help her until she helped herself. I felt the same way.

The people around us chimed in with advice:

  • “Could you contact the dentist to ask for a reduced bill? Or maybe set up a payment plan?”
  • “What about selling some of the things you own to get $900?”
  • “Can your wife earn money by babysitting or some other sort of work?”
  • “Maybe you could work at night while your kids are asleep.”

Caleb rejected each suggestion. “That won’t work for me,” he said, and he told us why each option was inappropriate for his situation.

In the end, the conversation broke up and everyone drifted away. Nobody was satisfied. Caleb hadn’t found an answer to his problem, and those of us who had offered suggestions felt as if they weren’t given enough credence.

I was particularly perplexed because the park was filled with folks who had done amazing creative things to improve their financial situations. Over the course of three hours, I spoke with people who earn extra money with Craigslist arbitrage, folks who do business consulting, people who live on just $10,000 per year. Caleb was surrounded by people who had found ways to widen the gap between their income and expenses. How were they able to do things that he wasn’t?

I wondered if there wasn’t some sort of work I could pay Caleb $900 to do for me.

A few days later, I was talking with a friend who had been present for the conversation with Caleb. “It was so strange,” she said. “I felt like he wanted to somebody else to solve his problem. It was as if he was unwilling to accept responsibility. And you know what? Maybe this is crazy, but $900 just doesn’t seem like that much money!”

“I remember when I was in his shoes,” I said. “Back then, a $900 bill could seem like a heavy weight. Still, I agree. Caleb is looking for outside answers when the only real solution is going to come from inside.”

I think that’s the fundamental shift in my financial philosophy over the past decade. Ten years ago, I too thought the only way to solve my financial problems was to win the lottery, inherit some money, or otherwise “get lucky.” I was waiting for somebody or something else to make my problems go away.

As I turned my life around (and began to write at Get Rich Slowly), I came to realize that I was the only one who could solve my problems. That’s why one of the tenets of my philosophy is “nobody cares more about your money than you do.” Other people are looking out for themselves. You must take charge of your own situation.

Yes, it’s true, some people are dealt lousy hands. But you know what? It doesn’t matter how you arrived at your current financial situation — whether it’s your fault or the fault of fate — it’s ultimately your responsibility to turn things around.

I’ve talked with other people like Caleb before. Some have overcome their circumstances. Some haven’t. Those who are still mired in muck usually offer responses like his: “I can’t because…”, “That won’t work because…”, “I don’t like…”, and so on. But those who have managed to break free usually spent some time getting dirty. They surrendered to the fact that they’d have to do things they didn’t want to do, such as work extra jobs or give up favorite luxuries.

Short-term sacrifices lead to long-term financial stability.

What do you think? What would you do if you were in Caleb’s shoes? Do you think those of us in the park were unsympathetic? Offering poor advice? What other options does he have available to him? In the past, how have you overcome financial stress? What can Caleb do to pay off his $900 dentist bill?

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